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June 20, 2019 • read
Thyroid disease: the symptoms you need to know about
One in 10 Canadians suffer from thyroid disease — yet only 50% of those affected know about it according to estimates. Many of the symptoms aren’t specific to thyroid issues, and can masquerade as signs of many other illnesses. With early diagnosis and proper treatment, the symptoms of thyroid disease are easily managed. But you have to know what you’re looking for.
What is the thyroid?
The human thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland found in the front of our neck. It releases hormones called triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4), that regulate our metabolism. By manufacturing these hormones, the thyroid influences the production of proteins throughout our body. It affects almost every tissue in the body, including those that underly our digestion and brain function.
When the thyroid is working properly, we don’t have to pay very much (if any) attention to it. As long as we’re getting enough iodine in our diet, the thyroid can go on doing what it does without conscious effort from us. But when the thyroid malfunctions, it can throw us off completely. When something goes wrong with our thyroid, it results in hypothyroidism or hyperthyroidism: issues with symptoms at opposite ends of the spectrum.
Also known as overactive thyroid, hyperthyroidism is when your thyroid produces too much T3, T4 or both, causing your metabolism to speed up. This can result in weight loss, increased sweating, rapid heart beat, irritability and nervousness, and frequent bowel movements, as well as abnormal periods and dry skin.
This one’s called underactive thyroid as it occurs when your thyroid isn’t producing enough hormones. For the most part, the symptoms are the opposite of those associated with hyperthyroidism. Instead we see weight gain, frequent feelings of cold, difficulty with memory, depression, constipation, abnormal periods, and brittle hair and nails. If left untreated, long-term effects can include joint pain, infertility and heart disease.
Thyroid problems in men
While many think of thyroid issues as predominantly affecting women, men are also at risk. Like women, symptoms of thyroid issues in men can cause exhaustion, difficulty concentrating and weight gain or weight loss. Both sexes may also have low libido, but men may also have to deal with erectile dysfunction. Men with hypothyroidism may be more likely to experience delayed ejaculation, while those with hyperthyroidism may have a greater risk of premature ejaculation.
Thyroid problems in women
Thyroid research and awareness has mainly centred on women, as they’re five to eight times more likely to have thyroid problems than men. While many of the symptoms are the same for both sexes, women’s reproductive health can also be affected. For those suffering from an underactive thyroid, for example, one sign may be irregular or heavy periods. In contrast, women with an overactive thyroid may experience light or missed periods. And in pregnant women, hyperthyroidism can be associated with preeclampsia, preterm delivery, miscarriage, and developmental issues in their children.
Risk factors for thyroid disease
Risk factors for thyroid problems are both genetic and environmental. This means that what can cause thyroid problems can range all the way from having an immediate family member with one, to smoking. Obviously, you can’t do anything about your genes, or your age and gender. These are all huge risk factors — with women over 60 being especially vulnerable to thyroid dysfunction. Women who have been pregnant within the past six months are also at increased risk. Receiving radiation in the chest or neck area or having surgery to treat an overactive thyroid, both increase the chances of developing an underactive thyroid.
There are some lifestyle factors, however, that you can control — smoking for instance. There is evidence to suggest that those who smoke have a slightly elevated risk of hyperthyroidism, while those who have quit smoking within the previous two years, may be at increased risk for hypothyroidism.
Iodine is crucial to the functioning of our thyroid. Since our bodies don’t make it, it’s essential to consume enough iodine for our thyroid to work properly. This isn’t usually a problem in Western countries where we add iodine to our table salt, but in some areas of the world, iodine deficiency is much more common.
The symptoms of thyroid disease can mimic many other illnesses, or even simple ageing! Because of this no specific cluster of symptoms can lead a conclusive diagnosis of thyroid disease. The only way to be sure you have one is to test your levels of thyroid hormones. Luckily, this is easily done with a simple blood test. If you are concerned that your thyroid isn’t working the way it should be, get in touch with us. In Ontario, Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta and Nova Scotia, our doctors can requisition the tests you need within minutes so that all you need to do is print the forms and head to a lab near you.
Treatment for thyroid disease typically involves taking hormones or other medications. Depending on which version you have, these either suppress or supplement your thyroid’s production of hormones. In the case of hyperthyroidism, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the thyroid, or treatment with radioactive iodine to destroy it.
Why see an endocrinologist?
Endocrinologists are doctors who study hormones and treat hormone-based diseases and disorders. If you have symptoms of thyroid issues, you’ll most likely be referred to an endocrinologist to figure out the right treatment plan. This is especially true if your treatment isn’t progressing as planned. An endocrinologist will ensure all treatment avenues are pursued to help manage your condition.
Both hypo- and hyperthyroidism can be debilitating, but with proper treatment, you can live a symptom-free life. If you find yourself experiencing any of the symptoms of either, don’t be shy about speaking with a doctor. Help is just around the corner.